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Tully (2018)

Tully is a Young Adult reunion, bringing back writer Diablo Cody (Juno), director Jason Reitman (Up in the Air), and star Charlize Theron (Atomic Blonde), and for people without kids, it can feel more like a horror movie. Numerous movies have conveyed the challenges of parenthood, the put upon moms and dads struggling to juggle schedules and lunches and homework, all without much time to themselves for self-care. Usually these movies will begin by displaying the hardships of parenthood but ultimately put a cheery bow on things by the end and conclude, “Yeah, but it’s all worth it.” Tully doesn’t provide that easy bow and I appreciated that. Motherhood can be a real bitch.

Marlo (Theron) is a 40-year-old mother who feels overwhelmed with life. She’s about to have baby number three and her “atypical” youngest son requires a lot of intensive supports and is upsetting his school. Her husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), is away for work often and late at night he plays online games and keeps to his side of the bed. Marlo’s rich brother (Mark Duplass) takes it upon himself to hire a “night nanny,” a person who watches the newborn baby during nighttime hours and allows the mother to get some restful sleep. Marlo is adamant about not letting a stranger watch over her child but soon relents and calls for the nanny. Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a mid-twenties godsend who is wise beyond her years, competent, and nonjudgmental. With Tully’s assistance, Marlo is able to make steps toward becoming the person she remembers.

Through its depiction, it feels like parenthood has a lot in common with incarceration. It feels like a new parent goes away for a multi-year sentence, loses all sense of sleep, is indentured into work often without any compensation, and required at a moment’s notice at all hours. Marlo’s life is certainly unglamorous but it’s also taking its toll. The needs of her children, including one with undiagnosed special needs, are snuffing out her sense of self and taking an unremitting physical and mental toll. The opening of the film has Marlo days away from her third pregnancy and she looks like she’s smuggling a beach ball. Her brother’s wife cheerfully adds, “You look glowing,” that age-old pregnancy praise, and Marlo’s unfazed reaction is more of a, “Really?” She then proceeds to compare herself to the trash barge that floated along the East Coast in the 1980s, a perfectly plucked pop-culture allusion from Cody. At no point do you doubt the love Marlo has for her family, but the servitude is driving her crazy and with no relief in sight with baby number three. There’s a pristine montage of her daily routine of feeding, pumping, changing diapers, and absent sleep, the days just melting into one another, and it’s so horrifying in its mind-numbing execution that it reminded me genuinely of Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream montages of drug-abuse and despair.

It’s a third of the way into the film when Tully enters the picture and serves as the long-needed change agent for Marlo. She’s the miracle worker nanny that works at night like a whimsical little elf, and the next morning the house is clean, the baby is taken care of, and Marlo has been allowed a rejuvenating night of sleep. You can chart the change in the quality time with the family, where quickie microwave pizza dinners become more advanced home-cooked meals with multiple ingredients and food groups. You can also chart the change through the magnificent performance of Theron, who appears to be regaining her sense of self and placement in the family. Tully serves as a refreshing, therapeutic conversationalist, able to get Marlo to introspectively reflect upon her life’s goals and setbacks and her sense of what she should be as a woman and not just as a mother. Tully is wise but also winsomely hopeful and optimistic; she recharges the battery for this family and Marlo in particular. These gentle, observational conversations are the best part of the film and Theron and Davis are wonderful together. Each woman seems to be learning from the other and providing a support system.

Cody’s early screenwriting was dinged for its obsession to be quippy and hip, but it has matured and depended over the years. Young Adult was an incisive character study in kamikaze narcissism, and it was as cold as Tully is warm, even-handed, and honest. Having a talent as surefire as Theron is a great asset, but it’s Cody’s storytelling that gives the movie its sting and its sweetness. This is something of a comfy thematic middle ground between the ironic, quippy yet sentimental Juno and the dark spiral of stunted growth in Young Adult (seriously, rent that movie again if you can, it’s vastly underrated). Tully is a movie that is lifted on wry observations and honest dialogue. It feels very real, so much so that I was convinced the reality show-within-a-show Gigolos (Marlo is a bashful fan) was the real deal for most of the movie [Edit: it has come to my attention this is a real show. Ahh, still a nice detail about Marlo character]. I also loved the drive into Brooklyn being relegated to jump cuts, each new jump playing a different Cyndi Lauper track on an album, which feels very biographical and authentic. The details of Cody’s story feel sharply developed and authentic, and that’s the biggest draw of this movie. It’s an unvarnished look into the realities of motherhood and each little detail helps further contribute to the larger portrait of Marlo’s exhausted life. The supporting characters do get a bit of short shrift here, kept as one-dimensional peripheral portrayals. I was expecting more from her husband Drew since their relationship and the platonic valley they’ve found themselves stuck in is another significant aspect. However, the movie is really about the relationship of Marlo and Tully and how they build up one another. Marlo even sees herself in the younger nanny, and she’s also wistful of a time that her body more closely resembled that of Tully’s flat tummy and compact derriere.

Theron continues to establish with role after role what a phenomenal acting chameleon she can be. I know we gush about Cate Blanchett, Amy Adams, and Kate Winslet as the finest actresses of their generation, but I feel like Theron deserves to be in that same hallowed Pantheon. She gave one of the best performances I’ve ever seen in 2003’s Monster and I think she was deserving of nominations for work as varied as a one-armed post-apocalyptic feminist warrior. Theron gained fifty pounds for this beleaguered role, which is an impressive commitment, but she doesn’t just let the weight gain serve as the focal point of her performance. She uses every exhausted muscle to communicate Marlo’s plight. When she’s slumped over in a chair and just rips her off stained shirt, you feel her utter defeat and desperation (“Mom, what’s wrong with your body?” one child asks). This is a woman who is tired to the bone. She’s taking everything life gives her and soldiering onward, afraid to speak up. This is best voiced when she describes her relentless day and staring into a closet and thinking, “Didn’t I just do this?” Theron’s renewed vitality as mother, wife, and most importantly, person, is a rewarding development to tag along with. Theron’s breadth of tenderness, sadness, and hard-won insight is easily relatable and emotionally engaging.

The one thing that holds me back from fully embracing Tully is a late story decision that I’m still wrestling over. It feels a bit like tonal whiplash and I immediately felt like it was completely unnecessary and that I was happy with the movie already being told. It left me jarred although I admit this decision helped provide better context for some unexpected turns in the middle between characters. Having deliberated for a couple of days, I can see how this decision plays into a larger sense of theme and character, while also tapping into something primal about motherhood and the emergency lifelines needed and provided. I’m warming to Cody’s decision and can see the rationale behind it. Still, there will be plenty of audience members that will be left questioning the thought process here.

Tully is the third collaboration between Cody and Reitman and they bring out the best in one another. After two duds in a row, I was worried that Reitman had become all too mortal after his 2006-2011 run of amazing films. It’s reassuring to find Reitman back in finer form and to also experience the maturing growth of Cody’s exceptional writing. I wish there was more with the supporting characters but this is a character study of our main momma. The late plot turn will divide audiences (I’ve already identified with both sides) but it serves the film’s larger focus on the well-being and recuperation of Marlo. Tully is a funny, compassionate, and unflinching movie about the perils of motherhood and the steps we all need to take to activate a little necessary self-care.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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The Conjuring (2013)

the-conjuring-poster1Does it seem like it’s getting harder and harder to scare people? Perhaps audiences have grown jaded by a real world kept at a fever pitch of post-9/11 anxiety and economic uncertainty. It seems that one solution is to just up the gore/gross factor, or overdose on grisly nihilism, but there has to be a law of diminishing returns to pointless shock value. The core elements of a good scary movie will usually be the same: make us care about the people onscreen and make us dread what happens next. What The Conjuring does so well, almost effortlessly, is what all provocative horror movies should accomplish, and that’s the formation of a truly effective spooky atmosphere. There may not even be any gore whatsoever in this film and very minimal jump scares, two overused tools in modern horror filmmaking. This is old school horror played to spine-tingling satisfaction.

Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are the top paranormal investigators in the nation. In 1971, they’re asked to determine what is tormenting the Perron family in rural Rhode Island. Carolyn (Lily Taylor) and Roger Perron (Ron Livingston) and their five daughters cannot rest as a vengeful spirit is wrecking havoc with their lives. The spirit wants a body count and won’t go away before it has blood.

100355_galDirector James Wan (Saw) and his team take their time to build a direct sense of unease, a chilling mood that leaves you dreading what may happen next. The success of a horror film isn’t necessarily the fear of what you see but more so what you fail to see. The buildup, in essence, is more pivotal than the boo part. Credit also needs to go to twin screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes (Whiteout, House of Wax) who show off their skill at setting up scares and delivering (I credit their work on Baywatch Nights because, well, someone has to remember that spin-off). The child game of Hide and Clap, where one person wanders blindfolded trying to find their compatriots, requesting three claps to locate them, is just a flat-out terrific idea to parlay into a horror movie. There’s the staple of dramatic irony, realizing what the onscreen character does not, and the increasingly suspenseful dredge into unknown danger. Another example is a wind-up toy that, when its jingle is complete, should reveal something ghostly in its mirror. This is a great device that delivers tension in budding anticipation. Then there’s one daughter’s habit of sleepwalking, which again leads to some effective unease. The Hayes find smart ways to introduce elements to their ghost story and then integrate them again and again in satisfying and spooky ways. Plus there’s all those groping in the dark moments and a super effective sound design. The film does an excellent job of developing old school scares, taking its time to get under your skin.

It also helps when you actually care about the character being tormented. The Conjuring does a good job of making its characters relatable given the outlandish circumstances. At no point does any character really violate the Law of Stupidity, where our allegiance reverses. They even present plausible reasons why the family can’t simply move out of its haunted abode (financially under water, no one to buy the estate, the ghost will just follow them). The Perron clan is a loving family that feels real. The Warrens themselves are given their own vulnerability, which is important since they are the experts. Having a know-it-all character without a weakness doesn’t make for an interesting battle against the paranormal. Lorraine can sense things, yes, but she also loses part of herself every time, thus endangering herself with every new case, making herself more susceptible to the forces she feels she’s been chosen to defend others from. When Lorraine accidentally leaves behind a family locket, with a picture of her daughter, it brings an escalated threat level that hits home for the Warrens. The acting form top to bottom is also exceptional. They don’t oversell the scares. You feel their fear in a palpable way.

Another aspect of a haunting story is the mystery surrounding the angry spirit. If it’s a compelling investigation, you’re intrigued by every new clue or revelation and enjoy how the pieces come together. While there isn’t a complex backstory to the haunting of the Perron home, The Conjuring has enough creepy historical details to add to the overall atmosphere. I enjoyed that the evil spirit cursed anyone who lived on her property, eventually divided up into different owners. I liked that the spirit had a mother-child fixation, turning mothers against their children. And I liked that these peripheral ghosts, many of whom killed themselves in ghastly fashions, also pop up to terrorize the Perrons. It adds further depth to the world of the film while upping the spooky factor.

THE CONJURINGI need to single out one section of the plot that was eerie but also a bit confounding. The opening case doesn’t have anything to do with the Perron family but it does set a nice mood. It’s about a cracked, fraying, and altogether creepy porcelain doll that appears to be possessed and leaving notes for its roommates (“Miss me?”). We later see this creepy doll again because the Warrens have an entire garage filled with creepy artifacts from previous investigations. They argue destroying the possessed items because it would unleash all those demonic forces, so instead the garage serves as a sort of prison (a priest comes by every so often to re-bless the premises, which sounds like a nice side gig for the Vatican). I’ll accept the Warrens reasoning that locking away these dangerous items, each with its own troubling story, is safer for mankind. It’s also just a great set that begs for further analysis to pick apart every artifact. What I do not understand at all is that it looks like the Warrens have no protective lock with this door. Their young daughter stumbles in at one point. I don’t want to give anybody parenting tips, but if you have a room stocked with demonically possessed items that can escape, perhaps, I don’t know, you get a padlock for that door to safeguard against unwanted intrusions.

While entertaining to the end, the third act doesn’t have the same effect because it transitions wholly from a haunted house story into an overt exorcism film. For my tastes, it’s less interesting and exorcism films have always come across as fairly lazy for me. Once you bring a demonic possession and a set of familiar rules, it sort of goes on autopilot and rarely strays from the same template as the most famous of exorcism movies (Naturally I’m talking about Repossessed). For fans of that horror subgenre, they’ll be tickled, but I found it a lesser way to steer the movie to its conclusion. I realize that we’re dealing with the parameters of a personal account (I’m hesitant to say “true story” when it comes to paranormal events, but that’s my own bias), so I understand that this is the direction the story must conclude. I just thought it was a slight downgrade.

If you’re looking for a scary movie this summer, then The Conjuring will do the trick. It’s an old school horror movie that’s more concerned with properly established atmosphere, a mood of dread, and paying off well-developed plot elements that pack a punch. The best compliment I can give Wan, the Hayes, and everyone else involved is that I was squirming throughout much of the movie, uneasily shifting and dreading what was next. There’s a maturity to the film and Wan’s direction, as if he’s patterned his style after the films of the 1970s themselves. After Insidious, Wan definitely knows a thing or two about keeping an audience afraid. There are several moments of unsettling imagery that should find a way to creep out just about everyone. Just remember: don’t invite dolls to live with you, do investigate those strange bruises, and always lock up your demonic possessions, people. In short, The Conjuring doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to ghost stories but it doesn’t have to, because this movie is scary good.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Going the Distance (2010)

At turns randy and sweet, this romantic comedy is surprisingly honest about the trials of long-distance relationships. Justin Long and Drew Barrymore fall for one another before their respective careers place them on opposite coasts. They explore all the real frustrations of having your beloved only reachable via phone for months on end. Going the Distance presents two likeable leads with an affable chemistry, and the real kicker is that they genuinely love each other. Nobody is a man-child or a shrew. The real villain is the distance. While the film doesn’t know if it wants to be a Judd Apatow-style raunchy comedy or a saccharine romantic comedy, there is a strong rooting interest in our couple. The supporting characters aren’t too wacky, the situations feel more authentic than contrived, and our couple makes seriously difficult decisions in the end that are downright adult. Going the Distance is a true surprise of a film. It’s got enough laugh-out-loud lines and situations to recommend as a comedy and enough emotional involvement to recommend as a relationship drama. It’s a little unnecessarily vulgar at times, like a fascinated kid who has just discovered the power of dirty words. While it may not go the full distance, this cheeky rom-com will nicely get you to a pleasant place.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009)

You think your romantic foibles are complicated? Based on Audrey Niffenegger’s best-selling novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, we follow the life of Henry (Eric Bana), a librarian stricken with the unique genetic disorder of uncontrollable time travel. He first discovered this condition when he was six years old and disappeared out of his mother’s car, only to rematerialize and watch her die from afar. An older version of Henry happened to also be on hand and fill in his younger self on the details. Henry will randomly move backwards and forwards through time, and there’s nothing he can do to stop it. One of the side effects of spontaneous time travel is, naturally, nudity, as Henry travels in the buff a la the Terminator. So usually the first thing he must do when he winds up some place new is find some clothes. Henry seems destined to be a sad and lonely man, but then one day Clare (Rachel McAdams) enters his life, confessing that she’s known Henry for years and been waiting for this exact moment to arrive. She asserts herself and asks Henry for a dinner date that’s been in the works for some time. They fall in love, or fall further in love in Clare’s case, and try to make a relationship work despite Henry’s hiccups through time.

There’s a tenderness to the movie, though I found it tricky to fully engage in the characters. Much of the movie concerns the plot complications that befall such a strained and unique relationship. The flick gives new meaning to cold feet when Henry literally vanishes during his wedding, only to reappear as a mid-40s version of himself (hey makeup department, you couldn’t do more to effectively age Bana than add a dash of grey?). There is a great mind-bending section where Clare cheats (?) on Henry with… a younger version of himself. I was interested in the subdued proceedings and I felt underpinnings of empathy for Henry and Clare, but then my mind wandered into something a little darker and pessimistic. Now, The Time Traveler’s Wife is a polished traditional romance despite the sci-fi trappings but I started thinking about if what I was witnessing was actual romance? Henry first visits Clare as a child, telling her he will be her eventual husband. She falls in love with him in that moment and rejects all other suitors, knowing with absolute certainty that she will marry Henry. She just has to find him. And when adult Clare does meet Henry the librarian, he has never seen her before up to that point (it’s not as confusing as it may sound). She’s been waiting years to see his face again and she tells him that they are destined to get married. You see what’s at play here? The romantic plot is a loop where each character supplies the other’s conviction. Henry locked Clare into a life of looking for him and said they would marry, but then the adult Clare is the one who convinces Henry that they will indeed marry, and he tells young Clare this who will then convince Henry, etc. Is there any free will at play here, or is each partner in this relationship being manipulated by the certitude of the other? It’s sort of a metaphysical chicken/egg scenario.

The best portion of the movie comes across during the second half when the movie focuses more on the emotional consequences of Henry’s condition. Early on Henry’s uncontrollable time traveling is played for laughs and some forced and somewhat trivial conflict (oh no, he missed another dinner!). Henry has a chilly relationship with his father (Arliss Howard) until, well, I’m not quite sure, but things improve. In the second half of The Time Traveler’s Wife, the drama gets more serious and intriguing when Clare and Henry attempt to conceive. Henry’s genetic disorder gets passed down to the baby fetuses, which means little babies are vanishing out of the womb and perishing before being zapped back inside. That’s a rather disturbing image and yet it is a thoughtful and plausible problem given the premise. As a result, Clare suffers through several traumatizing miscarriages. But they keep at it because Henry has seen his future lineage, also a time-traveler, and he knows that one of these pregnancies will go full term and become their eventual daughter, Alba (Tatum McCann). It was this storyline that stopped my mind from occasionally wandering and hooked my interest. Perhaps it’s cheap sentiment, but it’s hard not to feel for this loving couple when they endure pregnancies fraught with danger. The movie misses out on a dynamite dramatic opportunity with Alba. If I were adapting this to the screen, I would make sure to include Alba as a grown 30-something woman visiting her father on his deathbed, tearfully informing her dear dad on all the eventful moments that he won’t be around to experience. Picture an adult Alba talking about her own children to her dying father. There wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house. Hollywood, if you’d like to tack on an extra emotional ending to this movie, there’s still time. Call me.

It is here that I must address some key scenes that may pique curiosity. During Henry’s travels, he frequently visits the young child version of Clare. The first time Clare meets her future husband she is a little girl sitting in a meadow on the boundary of her family’s palatial estate. Henry, as he does every time he becomes unstuck through time, arrives in the nearby woods without a stitch on. Director Robert Swentke (Flightplan) and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (an Oscar-winner for Ghost) work diligently to make sure the movie walks a very fine tone, and I confess that the scenes between loving child and naked time-traveling man escape creepy pedophilic overtones. Take that blurb for what you will in a romance: “Hey, no pedophilic overtones!”

There are some other complications when it comes to this matter of unexpected time traveling. Firstly, the rules seem to be flexibly applied. At one point Henry is talking about how he cannot prevent his mother’s deadly car accident. The movie professed a destiny-entrenched approach to time travel, meaning every action you think you’re engaging out of free will was predetermined (the TV show Lost also subscribes to this theory). It cuts out time paradoxes. But then in another moment Henry uses his knowledge of the future to win the lottery. So which is it? Are the filmmakers trying to convince me that it was destiny for Henry and Clare to win the lottery, because I’m not buying it. Having a time-traveler for a boyfriend takes out some of the natural drama o relationships when one party can peak ahead. Relationships have danger and excitement and uncertainty to them, but when Henry can just matter-of-factly say, “We’re gonna be fine. We’re still together and in love fifteen years later, I saw it,” well it may make for good romance for some, but it makes for rather inert drama. How can you hope to win arguments? Naturally, the hefty book has been streamlined as much as possible for a mainstream moviegoing audience, which means that Henry’s scope of time traveling is scaled back. At one point he quantum leaps beyond his own lifetime, and because this has never happened before and is really only done to introduce a ticking death clock. I suppose there will always be inconsistencies when it comes to breaking the space-time continuum.

McAdams (The Notebook) is a great choice for the romantic center of the movie. She’s glassy-eyed and smiles so hard in her early sequences you think her dimples are going to explode off her cheery face. She is such a winning presence and her warm-hearted glow powers the character and the movie. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have very good chemistry with her onscreen mate. Henry is a victim of an existential cruel joke. Bana (Munich) is light-footed and makes Henry more than a space-time martyr. He’s somewhat amorphous as a character, a collection of niceties and genial, puppy-dog affection, which means that Henry is routinely upstaged by his genetic condition. However, when Henry faces the specter of his impending death is when the character gets a lot more attention and Bana is able to work his considerable talents. He gets ample opportunities to showcase his time-traveling buttocks. I don’t think too many women out there would be that put off if a naked Eric Bana magically materialized in their bedroom. Ladies, if you’re having trouble convincing your man to see The Time Traveler’s Wife, then whet his hormonal appetite with the promise of a flash of McAdams’ derrière. Yes, this is a movie where both sexes get to display their assets in the name of love.

The Time Traveler’s Wife is mildly reminiscent of The Lake House, and not just because of the time travel romantic complications. Deep down, these are traditional Hollywood romances with a fresh sci-fi coat of paint. The movie is best if you set the logic portion of your brain off so that inconsistencies and potential contrivances don’t distract from an intriguing story that presents some nice developments. There’s a tender love story here, though the characters don’t leave as much of an impression as they could have with such a plot-heavy romance. It finishes strongly and the mood throughout has a somber bittersweetness, hammering home the “enjoy the time you have” message. McAdams is darling, Bana gets in the buff, their chemistry isn’t great, and the filmmakers refrain from the material getting overly sentimental or solipsistic. My wife swears that the book is phenomenal (she read it all in one day) and that the movie is a fairly decent adaptation of a complex novel. In a summer of relative disappointments, a tricky, clever approach at traditional romance is welcome amidst the explosions and wacky studio comedies.

Nate’s Grade: B

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